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Teaching The Teacher

The gift of teaching creative writing

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Teaching is sometimes seen as a necessary evil for writers (it’s something people will pay us to do, and we, like everyone else, must eat, and pay our bills); or, if not an evil, then at least something that takes away from the ‘real’ business of writing. For many years I avoided straight teaching jobs, opting instead for writing projects and residencies which offered opportunities for me to make new work as well as facilitate others’ writing. In recent years though, I have turned to teaching in its more traditional form: working as a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Writing School, as an RLF Fellow at the University of Manchester, and mentoring individual writers via various organisations. All these experiences – from community workshops through to higher education – have demonstrated, time and again, just how valuable teaching is for my own writing practice.

Sometimes, when I’m teaching, I hear myself giving really good advice, and find myself half-laughing, having to explain to the students in question that I’m laughing because I realise it’s advice I should take myself. If only I actually did this, I say to them; if only I listened to what I’m telling you, I’d be a much happier / better / calmer writer. And whilst, for a long time, I resigned myself to the fact that the version of myself who took that advice – that more balanced, stable, reflective, thoughtful writer – just didn’t exist, I have noticed how I have started to hear myself – in teaching mode – as I write or edit or plan my own work. I have learnt how much teaching benefits my own writing; how reading and discussing others’ work helps me to understand my own. Indeed, the workshop model, used at MMU and across the globe to teach creative writing, is predicated on the idea that through reading and critiquing peers’ work, the student learns to analyse and critique their own. It turns out that that works for the teacher as well as their students.

Teaching has helped me in three key ways. The first is to do with the technicalities of writing; teaching has forced me to reflect and read and think about matters of structure, grammar, craft. The second is to do with process — both the creation and the editing of work; articulating my own process and listening to others discuss theirs has given me more of an insight into how I write. The third is to do with passion: working with students who are excited about their projects and committed to developing their writing is endlessly inspiring.

Writing is a craft. It took me a long time to realise that. I had some strange (but not uncommon) idea that I should just know how to write a novel and that not having a clue was a failure on my part. The realisation that I was honing a craft came as a huge relief. Of course, it makes no sense that someone would just sit down, with no prior thought or practice, and produce a perfect piece of work. You wouldn’t expect someone to pick up a cello for the first time and knock out a concerto at a professional standard. And so, I have practised and read and reflected, and learnt through sheer hard work, and I still don’t know the half of it. Teaching, though, has helped me realise what I do know, and what I don’t. Structure, for instance, is something I have always struggled with — the architecture of a piece, whether a novel or an essay; how to make the pieces fit together to say what I want to say. In order to talk to my students about structuring their work I’ve had to really think about it, and really thinking about it has helped when I come to structure my own.

This focus on technicalities stretches from a piece’s structure, right down to its punctuation and grammar. I went to comprehensive schools in the 1980s and ’90s and was never taught grammar. When I began my RLF fellowship this is what worried me the most. It’s not that my grammar is bad, rather that I don’t have the right words to describe what is and isn’t working in a sentence. It’s been liberating to face up to this gap in my knowledge, to talk with students about grammar and admit I don’t have all the vocabulary, and to force myself to think on this micro-scale about how we make sentences that work. I feel much more confident talking about grammar after a year in the role (and doing quite a lot of online research both within and outside of tutorials), and I am quicker to catch issues in my own drafts as a result.

I am fascinated by how differently people approach writing. My instinct (fuelled by experience and observation) is that being aware of how we write, and what works for us, has a powerful impact on our relationship with writing. Too often, people think they ‘should’ be doing this or that, or ‘shouldn’t’ be doing the other, and these layers of insecurity and self-criticism can be paralysing. I encourage my students to reflect on their writing process, to work out what works for them, regardless of what works for others, and to own and nurture and honour that process. I love working with metaphors for writing. A favourite is one offered to me by the writer Tobias Woolf over twenty years ago: the idea of writing as sculpting clay. As writers we don’t have any pre-existing material, and so we must make our clay before we set about sculpting it. Writing a first draft becomes making clay: seriously messy. And then we can work with that lump of clay, gradually refining it over multiple drafts, starting with big structural decisions and only towards the end bothering about the detail: the cadence of a sentence, the exact position of a comma. I offer this metaphor over and again to students, hoping that it gives them what it gave me: permission to write appalling early drafts and know that there’s no point obsessing about the small stuff too early on. Revisiting this metaphor, and exploring others, helps me because it reminds me to reflect on my own process; to realise where I am in a project, and accept the often slow, often frustrating business of writing. It reminds me to focus on the process, not just the product I am trying to create, which keeps me open to new ideas; stops me from getting tunnel vision.

Writing is hard. In Zen and the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury declares it ‘difficult, agonising, a dreadful exercise, a terrible occupation’. As writers, we need to find ways to keep going, to keep connected to the other side of writing: the joyful, exciting, wouldn’t-want-to-be-doing-anything-else side. Teaching does this for me. It connects me with people who care about writing; who are excited about writing; who are committed to developing and nurturing their writing and themselves as writers. And this inspires me to do the same. It’s a real privilege to work with writers and support them to develop their voice, their confidence and their craft. Sometimes, I’ll get a truly talented student: someone whose work sends tingles down my spine, and that too is inspiring, in the way reading any great literature is. As writer Madeleine L’Engle says: ‘A great novel, rather than discouraging me, simply makes me want to write’.

Teaching is a gift, I have realised. A way to stay connected; to remind myself of what I know and reveal what I need to think about more deeply. It inspires me, energises me and gives me satisfaction. After a year in my role as RLF Fellow I have noticed how differently I’ve planned and written this piece — how I’ve paid attention to topic sentences; caught my repetitions and waffle; written and revised a plan more thoroughly than I might have a year ago. When we teach writing, we get better at writing. There are times, when in the midst of making my own early, messy, drafts, that I can feel like a fraud in the classroom, and yet sharing that experience and that self-doubt with my students benefits all of us. And when I come to edit that early, messy draft, I am grateful for the voices in my head – my own and my students’ – that help me think about what I am trying to create, and how to make it the best piece of work I can.

Sarah Butler has published three novels: Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love (2013), Before the Fire (2015) and Jack and Bet (2020). She also runs UrbanWords, exploring the relationship between writing and place through participatory projects and residencies and is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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